Entrepreneurial learning journey: voices on the NYC subway

We’re all familiar with the Post-It Note, a small piece of paper with a strip of glue on its back, made for temporarily attaching notes to documents and other surfaces. Although 3M’s patent ran out in 1997, ‘Post-It’ and the original notes’ distinctive yellow colour remain registered 3M trademarks.

Originally small yellow squares – the original notes’ yellow colour was chosen by accident, as the lab next-door to the Post-It team had only yellow scrap paper to use – Post-It Notes are now available in an array of colours.

In 1968, a scientist at 3M, Dr. Spencer Silver was attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive. Instead he accidentally created a ‘low-tack’, reusable, pressure sensitive adhesive. For five years, Silver promoted his ‘solution without a problem’, within 3M but failed to gain acceptance.

In 1974 a colleague, Art Fry, came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymnbook. Fry then utilized 3M’s officially sanctioned ‘permitted bootlegging’ policy to develop the idea. 3M launched the product as ‘Press ‘n Peel’ in 1977, and sold as ‘Post-Its’ in 1979.

So we’re all familiar with the product, but on my recent visit to New York I witnessed a remarkable use of Post-It Notes, with 5,000+ on the walls of Union Square subway, left as public statements after the presidential election result, when a majority of New Yorkers voted against President-elect Trump.

Project organiser Matthew ‘Levee’ Chavez called it the ‘Subway Therapy’ project that allowed New Yorkers to express their feelings. The creation will be preserved at the New-York Historical Society as potent artefacts of everyday life.

After the election, Chavez set up a table and chair to listen to the voice and feelings of the commuting public. He brought a stack of sticky notes to the 14th Street station and started the installation in the underground passageway that connects the 1 train to the L train, handing out the notes and letting people vent their emotions onto the subway wall.

The sticky notes expressed a range of emotions and feelings, from hope and optimism to the crude and rude. They captured the feeling of the city immediately after the election. The project attracted the attention of City Governor Cuomo, who visited the station to leave his own note that included the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty’s tablet.

I found the notes to be a powerful symbol of the community voice. They made compelling reading. It was a piece of public realm art that helped people to think about new ways of connection with each other and expressing themselves. It took me a minute and a half to walk from one end to the other. I stood reading for 30 minutes.

The New-York Historical Society will remove the notes from the walls and store them on mylar sheets in archive boxes to be digitised. The project is not done yet, they will be there to Inauguration Day on January 20 as people continue to add their thoughts.

In a city of 8 million people, it’s hard to share your opinion, but this worked. You will not divide us. Love is everything. Another says It doesn’t end today. Michelle Obama’s now famous declaration, If they go low, we go high, is on there. Another sticky note offers soothing words: Everything will be alright. But a few feet over, another person wasn’t so sure: What do we do now? There was an answer amid the sea of impromptu messages: We’ve been through worse (meaning 9/11) and the city will unite, the light pink sticky note said. We will get through this together because love trumps hate.

It was hard to move in the 14th Street-Union Square subway. Weeks after the election result, crowds of people still stop to look at the vibrant rainbow of Post-It Notes curling against the blanketed walls, interrupting the flow of the normal New York hustle and bustle.

Subway Therapy was a spontaneous project encouraging people to share their feelings. The first notes went up in the tunnel linking the 1/2/3 and F train platforms at 14th Street in Manhattan, and soon spread to Union Square and other subway stations in the city and beyond, including Boston and San Francisco, as copycat walls sprung up in other New York stations.

We might look at Post-it Notes as incredibly quaint, but this method of communication really captured the spirit of 2016 and the needs of New Yorkers at that particular moment, with the notes expressing frustration, solidarity, sympathy and other emotional messages.

From a business perspective, even if someone doesn’t believe their voice is important, the Subway Therapy project shows the importance of providing a platform to communicate with and listening to your customers, even if their message isn’t something you want to hear.

You may hear what they have to say, but do you really listen? For me, hearing means registering the information but not doing much about it. Listening, on the other hand, means understanding and reacting in a meaningful manner.

I realised the power of listening when working with startups developing their early protoypes and seeking feedback from their early adopters. I learned that they had the answers to the challenges we faced – all we had to do was to listen. Listening is a fascinating art and, when done correctly, it can deliver tremendous and surprising outcomes.

What does listening to your customers say to them? It says that you care, you are serious about your business and you are open minded, looking to learn and understand their perspective. After all, you started your business to win customers, so make sure you make them feel valuable. By listening, you are more likely to gain customer loyalty, and thus win more business.

Today’s customers are empowered and expect companies to give them what they want, when they want it, and this has had a significant impact on how businesses approach listening – both challenges and opportunities. With this in mind, monitoring and analysis of customer sentiment is a crucial part of growing your business. Whether positive or negative, if you listen to what your customers are saying then you’ll be in the best possible position to learn and to engage effectively.

Listening and analysing customer feedback can also contribute to product development and marketing strategies which reflect more of what your customers want, thus providing a platform for customer centric growth strategies. Listening to your customers’ voice doesn’t have to be difficult. Living in your customers’ world, walking in their shoes enables you to get better customer insights to fuel better decisions, being ‘personal’ will create opportunities to strengthen relationships and understanding, capturing customer’s expectations, preferences and aversions.

Starbucks – as a global brand – is the antithesis of local, and yet they tapped in to the importance of being valued in a unique way through the Can I have your name? approach. At first disruptive and peculiar, it is now hard for other brands to copy that is the name that appears on the cup. It is human and therefore wonderfully imperfect, and in many ways more effective than communication based on algorithms.

However, the biggest communication challenge is then we often do not listen to understand, we listen to reply, so what are the habits of a good listener? How do people with good listening skills tune in? Good listening is much more than being silent when the other person talks. Good listening includes interactions that build a person’s self-esteem, creating a collaborative conversations. A good listener will listen not only to what is being said, but also to what is left unsaid or only partially said.

So let’s look at good listening techniques:

Stop Talking If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear – Mark Twain. Don’t talk, listen. When somebody else is talking listen to what they are saying, do not interrupt, talk over them or finish their sentences for them. Stop, just listen.

Prepare yourself to listen Focus on the speaker, put other things out of mind. The human mind is easily distracted by other thoughts – what’s for lunch, what time is my train, is it going to rain – put other thoughts out of mind and concentrate on the messages that are being communicated.

Be fully in the moment – be an active listener Focus on what is being said. Don’t doodle, shuffle papers, gaze out the windows or similar. Avoid unnecessary interruptions. These behaviours disrupt the listening process and send messages to the speaker that you are bored or distracted.

Sit their side of the table Empathise, try to understand the other person’s point of view. Look at issues from their perspective. Let go of your preconceived ideas. By having an open mind we can more fully empathise with the speaker, which they will recognise.

Listen to the tone Volume and tone both add to what someone is saying. Everyone will use pitch, tone and volume of voice in certain situations – let these help you to understand the emphasis of what is being said.

Be curious listen for ideas – not just words You need to get the whole picture, not just isolated bits and pieces. One of the most difficult aspects of listening is the ability to link together pieces of information to reveal the ideas of others. Be curious, and create the full picture.

Watch for non-verbal communication Gestures, facial expressions, and eye-movements can all be important. We don’t just listen with our ears but also with our eyes – watch and pick up the additional information being transmitted via non-verbal communication.

Show you’ve picked up on the key points After a period in the conversation, show that you’ve been listening by replaying back a few key points raised so far, and ask them to clarify anything that you did not understand. This gives the speaker confidence that you are taking the conversation seriously.

So good listening techniques. But back to the Post-It Note collection on the NYC subway. It’s unlikely that Trump is bothered about the Subway Therapy installation, he’s unlikely to listen. As Woodrow Wilson said, the ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people. Then again, big egos have little ears.

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